When physicians use the word “depression,” they don’t mean feeling disappointed or blue, or grieving a loss—normal moods that everyone experiences from time to time. Clinical depression is a persistently sad, hopeless, and sometimes agitated state that profoundly lowers the quality of life and that, if untreated, can result in suicide. Doctors aim, with drugs and sometimes psychotherapy, to raise their patients’ moods, but yoga has much loftier goals. As a yoga therapist, you want not only to help lift your students out of depression but to quiet their restless minds, put them in touch with their deeper purpose in life, and connect them with an inner source of calm and joy that yoga insists is their birthright.
When teaching yoga to students with depression it is not only best to personalize your approach for each student , but it is also useful to divide students into two major categories, each with its own characteristics and yoga practices that are most likely to be helpful.
Some students’ depression is marked by a dominance of tamas, the guna associated with inertia. These people may have a hard time getting out of bed and may feel lethargic and hopeless. Students with tamasic depression often have slumped shoulders, collapsed chests, and sunken eyes. It looks as if they are barely breathing – giving them the appearance resembling that of a deflated balloon.
A more common type of depression is marked by a predominance of rajas, the guna associated with activity and restlessness. These students are often angry, have stiff bodies and racing minds, and may appear agitated, with a hardness around their eyes. In Savasana (Corpse Pose) or restorative poses, their eyes may dart and their fingers won’t stay still. These students frequently report difficulty in exhaling fully, a symptom often linked to anxiety.
Asana for Depression
From a yogic perspective, people with tamasic depression lack life force or prana. You’ll want to concentrate on practices that bring breath to the body, particularly deep inhalations. If they are able to tolerate them, vigorous practices such as repeated Sun Salutations (Surya Namaskar), arm balances, and other challenging poses can be therapeutic. The body and mind are so occupied with the practice that it’s hard to brood. When teaching vigorous practices to students with depression, don’t worry much about proper alignment. As long as they aren’t doing anything that might cause an injury, it’s better to have them just do the practice and focus on the movement of the breath.
Backbends, in particular, can be stimulating and help fight tamas. These range from restorative poses such as supported Savasana (done with a bolster placed lengthwise under the torso) and supported Bridge Pose (Setu Bandha Sarvangasana) to more active poses such as Camel Pose (Ustrasana) and full backbends (Urdhva Dhanurasana). Once you’ve gotten students to overcome some of their tamas, they may be able to relax more deeply. If you try relaxation first, however, you may find them sinking into dark thoughts, defeating the purpose.
Students with rajasic depression also tend to respond to Sun Salutations and backbends, though some of them will find strong backbends too agitating. Vigorous practices have the advantage of helping students burn off some nervous energy, and also of being demanding enough to keep their attention from drifting.
Indeed, some students have such a tendency to brood or get swept away with anxious or negative thoughts that asking them to close their eyes in Savasana and restorative poses (and even during Pranayama and meditation) may be counterproductive. Any of these practices can be done with open eyes or, if necessary, skipped entirely. Another option is to prop students way up in Savasana, even having them lean on an inclined bolster placed against the wall, can be helpful.
Written by Timothy McCall MD, published on 28th August 2007 on www.yogajournal.com/teach/yoga-for-depression-part-i/